GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERASam Hawken has made the Texas borderlands his own unique home in a number of well received and hard-hiting crime novels. His first novel, the 2011 work, The Dead Women of Juarez, was published in the UK and used the real-life tragedy of female homicides in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez as the stepping-off point for a story of corruption, despair and redemption. It was shortlisted by the Crime Writers Association for the John Creasy New Blood Dagger.

Tequila  Sunset followed in 2012, returning once again to Ciudad Juárez and its sister city, El Paso, Texas. This time Hawken drew upon the legacy of the infamous gang Barrio Azteca, at one time responsible for over 80% of the murders in Juárez, formerly the murder capital of the world. Once again, the Crime Writers Association recognized Hawken’s work, nominating the novel for the Gold Dagger (best crime novel of the year).

Though he no longer counts Texas as his home, he has not left the American Southwest behind. His third traditionally published novel, La Fronetera  appeared in December 2013, with a fourth,  Missing, just out.

Hard work pays off: Sam recently signed a two-book deal with Mullholland books. First of a new series, The Night Charter, will be out next year.

Sam, it’s great to have you on Scene of the Crime. Lets start things deadwomen2-195x300off with a description of your connection to Texas.

I was born in and spent half my life in south Texas, and the Mexican border was simply a part of my life. I lived among a Latino population in the United States and going over the bridge into Mexico didn’t provide the culture shock it does for some people. As I got older, I went farther and farther into the country, culminating in a weeks-long journey through the interior of the country, finally ending up on a beach in Mazatlán.

My time in Ciudad Juárez was, by contrast, fairly brief, but I visited there repeatedly in the ‘70s and ‘80s and got the impressions that have lasted until today. From what I understand from reading Mexican newspapers and books, the fundamental character of the city hasn’t changed. It’s considerably more violent than it was in “my day,” but it is still the same place. I doubt I’ll return until the drug war is over.

What things about Juárez make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?

Juárez is a city of industry, which is not something most people associate with Mexico. The maquiladoras, which are factories servicing American companies from GM to Dell, are the economic lifeblood of that community. People come from all over Mexico for a chance to work for a few dollars a day, making Juárez a place of strangers quite unlike most other cities in Mexico, where familial ties run deep.

I’ve also recently published a book, Missing, that takes place in Nuevo Laredo, a border town across from the Texas city of Laredo. I am intimately familiar with the atmosphere and cadence of Nuevo Laredo from my many visits there, but I’ve seen from afar as drug violence has torn this place, once a day-tourist haven, to pieces. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of violence on all of Mexico, but it is felt most acutely along the border, which used to be one of the more peaceful and prosperous places in the country.

TequilaSunset2-196x300Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?

I’ve gotten a lot of comment over three books about Mexico concerning the verisimilitude of my novels, with people praising the authentic detail. Truth to tell, I never intended the books to be a travelogue or anything of the sort. I simply set out to tell a story that could only be told in those places at this time. I’m not displeased that the setting has become a sort of character of its own, but it was purely unintentional.

How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you? 

I try to make reference to the features that are unique to the cities where my books take place. In The Dead Women of Juárez and Tequila Sunset, I talked about the marked contrast between the city at war on the Mexican side, with its trucks with mounted machine guns and armed and armored soldiers in the streets, and the almost total peace experienced on the American side in El Paso. In Missing I wanted to talk about Boy’s Town, the infamous “red light” district of the city where prostitution is concentrated on a couple of blocks of strip clubs and live sex shows and pretty much whatever else you can think of. I also tried to make note of the cross-border tourist traffic, which is hanging on by a thread.

These things make the settings unique and help sell the stories as true-to-life. I suspect this is a point of primary interest for my readership, as I hear back from them quite often about how they really felt transported to the locales where everything takes place.

How do your protagonists interact with his/her surroundings?  JuarezDancex2500-200x300

During the course of three Mexico novels I’ve had seven main characters. These characters run the gamut from American expatriate (Kelly Couter in The Dead Women), burnt-out Mexican cop (Rafael Sevilla of the same), El Paso native working the gang beat (Cristina Salas in Tequila Sunset), a Mexican federal agent targeting the brutal work of cartel-affiliated gangs (Matías Segura, Tequila Sunset), Latino gang member in El Paso (Flip Morales, also of Tequila Sunset), ordinary American living on north bank of the Rio Grande (Jack Searle, Missing) and idealistic Mexican police investigator (Gonzalo Soler, Missing). As you can see from that list, that’s a whopping chunk of humanity, all of them coming at the setting of Mexico from more than a half-dozen different points of view. Some are steeped in the violence, some overwhelmed by it, some deliberately distant from it and others drawn in against their will. It’s enabled me to take on Mexico from every angle: insider, outsider, Mexican, American, cop, criminal.

The one thing all of these characters have in common is that they are poisoned by Mexico’s atmosphere of violence. Eventually all things lead back to the drug war and this attitude that life doesn’t matter. Not everything ends well for every one of my protagonists, but I hope those who read the books will feel it ends appropriately. There’s no escaping the gravitational pull of Mexico’s culture of death.

Has there been any local reaction to your works? 

I haven’t ever heard anything from anyone currently living in Mexico, though I’ve been in touch with a couple of folks who have in the past. One was an American expatriate who spent a year living in war-torn Juárez and he took exception to my focus on the feminicidios, or female homicides, of the city. In Juárez, which is highly patriarchal along with most of Mexico, the issue of the female homicides is considered offensive to talk about in any serious way, and I got some of that in my emails with him.

Another contact came from a gentleman who comes from Juárez, but now lives in the United States. He praised my work for its authenticity and unflinching examination of the problems in his country of birth, so I guess I did well? I suppose it depends on what your experience was in Mexico’s borderland as to whether or not my books strike you as true to place. Those with an axe to grind will find plenty to get exercised about. Those who have different memories understand where I’m coming from.

lafrontera-200x300Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).

I don’t know that it’s humorous, but I did make a kinda-sorta mistake in The Dead Women of Juárez. I talked about the city’s cross-border tourist trade and the party scene, but if you read the book from the perspective of the time it was published, that cross-border traffic had all but vanished and the party scene was dead. I had a reviewer ding me on that. In my defense, though, the book never does say when it takes place, so if one is feeling generous one may grant that the events of the The Dead Women occur in the early 2000s and not 2011 when the book was released. That said, I’d probably change that section of the book if I were writing it today.

Of the novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?

Probably the scene that most typifies the level of violence in Mexico is a scene from Tequila Sunset, in which federal investigator Matías Segura is summoned to the scene of a crime where gang members have grotesquely dispensed with their enemies.

“Let’s have a look,” Matías said.

 They rounded the fire-pit. The heat coming from it was substantial and Matías felt for the PF agents in their black uniforms, digging in the ashes for more cooked bits. Near the pit were three discarded plastic gasoline cans and a box of matches that had hit the ground and spilled. Away from the property, perhaps ten meters off, there was a thick stand of mesquite trees.

“How many?” Matías asked.

“You can see the three. I think that’s a fourth one there.”

“Who called it in?”

“Anonymous. There’s not a public phone within five kilometers of this place, so it was probably someone on their mobile. We’ll trace the number, but I don’t have high hopes.”

 “They probably called it in themselves,” Matías said.

 “Most likely.”

 Matías watched as one of the PF men dislodged a heavy chunk of blackened flesh from underneath a bed of roasting mesquite. This one still had a head attached, though the features were burnt into obscurity. When he circled completely around to the sheet, he saw the remains of three torsos and most of five legs. The heads came separately, severed through the neck. One section of arm was only elbow and the flesh immediately above and below the joint.

“They were dismembered first,” Matías remarked.

“At least they didn’t go into the fire alive,” Felix said.

These fires are a real thing and are about as foul as you can imagine. Mexico is not for the faint-hearted. I think this scene really brings that home for the readers. This is not America and the criminals who populate Mexico’s drug-fueled underground are not the criminals of our American prisons.

Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers missingcoverfinalinfluenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?

I freely cop to having terrible taste in books and read a lot of trash. However, I don’t read all trash and my favorite authors in the “real” literary scene are Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. Hemingway had a gift for granting sense of place to his readers, as anyone who’s read pretty much anything of his can tell you. His language is also beautiful and nothing like the staccato parodies you read all the time.

Cormac McCarthy wrote the single most influential book in my library, and that’s No Country for Old Men. Much of what I’ve written over the past four years has been midwifed by that book, what with its sparse prose and unflinching narrative. I’d argue that No Country does a nominally worse job of conveying place — did most people even realize it took place in the ‘80s? — but it’s just so damned good that I really don’t care.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

I would probably live in Portland, Oregon or somewhere nearby. I like cool temperatures and I like rain and forests, so Oregon is a perfect place for me. Right now I live in a heavily populated area in the mid-Atlantic region and I dislike it pretty thoroughly. It lacks the character of a real city (everyone’s scattered everywhere at random) and its climate doesn’t agree with me. Though we do regularly get snow, which is something Oregon doesn’t get.

What’s next for you?

I have put away Mexico for the time being, and possibly forever. After publishing four books set in the country, three with Serpent’s Tail and a fourth with small press Betimes Books, and having written a few more than haven’t been published, I’m pretty much done everything I care to do south of the border. Luckily I’ve been picked up by Mulholland Books and have a new series of action thrillers coming out in 2016 starring Camaro Espinoza, a damaged Army veteran whose history of violence comes bubbling to the surface when bad things happen to the wrong people. The first book is set in Miami and goes into some detail about the leftover anti-communist movement among the Cuban community, so I’m still trying to give readers a taste of setting with their story.

Thanks for having me on your blog!

And thanks for taking the time to be with us, Sam. Good luck to you.

To learn more about the work of Sam Hawken, visit his author page.

german 2It’s been a hundred years since the beginning of the ‘war to end all wars’, and there have been a spate of books published this year looking at all aspects of World War One. I add a fictional element with The German Agent, a thriller set in Washington, DC, in 1917. Though the war had raged in Europe, the Middle East, and even parts of Africa for three years, the U.S. did not join in hostilities until 1917. The German Agent provides background to how we got involved in the international stage and is also a good, old-fashioned thriller in the style of Ken Follett.

The German Agent is available in England at the end of  September, and coming to the U.S. market in January, 2015. First a quick blurb, and please read on for a post on the inspiration for the book:

A ruthless German spy is torn between love and duty in this powerful espionage thriller

February, 1917. A lone German agent is dispatched to Washington to prevent the British delivering a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson – by any means possible. For this is the Zimmermann telegram: it contains a devastating piece of news which is sure to bring the USA into the war on the side of Britain and her allies.

Having fought in the trenches himself, Max Volkman knows that America’s involvement will only prolong the slaughter of innocents and is implacable in his determination to kill the British envoy carrying the telegram. But when his pursuit of the Englishman leads him to the home of American heiress Catherine Fitzgerald, wife to one of Washington’s most powerful politicians, he is presented with a terrible choice: loyalty to his comrades in the trenches or the loss of the one woman he has ever truly loved.

His decision will determine the outcome of the First World War.

Continue Reading »

barry-lancet-4-thumbBarry Lancet is the author of the Jim Brodie series of thrillers, featuring the Tokyo-based PI and antiques dealer. Lancet hit the ground running with the first novel in the series, Japantown, which was nominated for a Barry Award and selected as the Best Debut of the Year by Suspense Magazine in 2013. It was highly praised by critics. Booklist called it a “solid mystery with a memorable protagonist, the book captures our interest from the first page,” while the New York Times dubbed it a “sophisticated international thriller.” Japantown was also optioned for television by J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, in association with Warner Bros. Continue Reading »

indexGerman has a word for someone who exhibits this sort of behavior: Arschloch.

Mea culpa, I plead guilty to the symptoms of this malaise more than once in my life, but the one instance that sticks out most in memory is in the spring of 1969 on a trip to Berlin.

As in East Germany. Yes, that East Germany: Checkpoint Charlie, spies in trench coats and fedoras, the Wall, building facades pockmarked with artillery damage a quarter century after the end of World War II. After the Abu Ghraib photos and the NSA disclosures, the Cold War seems an almost romantic place. Nothing romantic about it, however, if you were on ground zero at the time.

Berlin was ground zero for the Cold War.

It was not a smart time for me to display my Arschloch side. Continue Reading »



I just learned that author Jim Thompson died in Finland on August 2. It’s a shocker and my thoughts go out to his wife. Jim was a long-time resident of Finland and penned four books in the popular Inspector Vaara series. The fifth, Helsinki Dead, was left unfinished at the time of his very untimely death at the age of 49. According to one Finnish source, James was apparently killed in an accident.

Born in Kentucky, Jim packed a lot into his all too short life. In addition to being a successful author, Jim had variously turned his hand to being a bartender, bouncer, construction worker, photographer, rare coin dealer, soldier and wrestling announcer. He earned a Master’s degree in English Philology from the University of Helsinki and spoke six languages.

I have run posts on Jim and his work a couple of times. As I recall, I was introduced to Jim and his work by Leighton Gage, another writer no longer with us. I find myself reverting to useless euphemisms at times like this; at times like this words don’t seem very useful. For a brief obit/bio, see this piece in the Helsinki Times.

We never met in person, but Jim was just one of those special people it was an honor to have known. He cared so very much about his craft and was savvy about the book business, kind to friends, and not one to suffer fools gladly.

I’ll miss him–I am sure there are a lot of you out there who will too.

img_0005Jason Goodwin is a British historian and author of the popular historical mystery novels featuring the eunuch detective Yashim and set in Istanbul during the early nineteenth century. The world of the Ottoman Empire figures importantly in the series, and Cambridge-educated Goodwin brings that world vividly to life in his novels, having already dealt with it in has narrative history, Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. The Yashim series debut, The Janissary Tree, earned Goodwin an Edgar Award for the Best Novel in 2007.

Second in the series, The Snake Stone, won critical praise from many quarters. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio noted: “When you read a historical mystery by Jason Goodwin, you take a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth.” The Washington Post also commended that series addition, observing: “The real pleasure of The Snake Stone lies in its powerful evocation of the cultural melting pot that was nineteenth-century Istanbul. . . . Goodwin’s sharp eye combines with a poetic style to bring the city vividly to life.” Book three in the series, The Bellini Card, prompted laudatory words from Publishers Weekly: “Goodwin skillfully blends deduction, action sequences and period color.” The fourth series installment, An Evil Eye,was published in the spring of 2011, and Publishers Weekly dubbed it “masterful.” Continue Reading »

BreedingThe U.S. release of A Matter of Breeding, the fifth book in my Viennese Mysteries series, is now available. To celebrate its publication, the San Francisco Book Review features me in an extensive interview on the series and on writing historical fiction, as does the Big Thrill.

The novel also continues to garner strong reviews.

Publishers Weekly felt that this “solid fifth whodunit featuring lawyer Karl Werthen and real-life criminologist pioneer Hanns Gross … is one of the series’ best at combining plot and historical background.”

Kirkus Reviews also had praise for the novel, noting: “Turn-of-the-century Austria has its own homegrown Jack the Ripper, a killer with a cruelly creative streak and a disturbingly playful nature…. Jones adds a delicious historic perspective…, all presented with precision and panache.”

Here’s a brief summary of the book:

The fifth installment of the acclaimed Viennese Mystery series, A Matter of Breeding, finds lawyer and private inquiries agent Karl Werthen and his colleague, the criminologist Dr. Hanns Gross, investigating a series of grizzly murder/mutilations of young women in the Austrian province of Styria. The newspapers are touting Jewish blood ritual murders and vampirism, and Werthen and Gross–assisted by the Irish writer Bram Stoker who is in Austria to give a speech–battle against time to discover the real motive for such brutal and seemingly random killings. Meanwhile, Werthen’s wife, Berthe, has her own case to deal with. Commissioned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand, she is investigating a potential breeding scandal at the famous Lipizzaner stud. If the stud line has indeed been corrupted, this can prove to be more than a mere embarrassment for the Habsburgs, for the Lipizzaner blood line has been introduced to most of the royal stables of Europe. As these dual investigations proceed, it eventually becomes apparent that there is a connection between the two. In the end, it all comes down to a matter of breeding.

You can actually buy it now at Amazon or  at your favorite bookshop.


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